In the middle of the first letter sent to the new believers in Corinthians (with instructions on how to use the gifts or tools the Holy Spirit gives) Paul gives is this warning:
Without love, it’s all a gong show (my loose translation).
As Christians we talk about love. We urge people to take the job of showing love seriously. We quote the verse about turning the other cheek. But who knew the charge to love our neighbours as ourselves could turn into a burden that keeps people weighted down with disappointment in themselves and in other less-than-considerate members of the church that is supposed to lead in this area? Who knew the instruction to love could make us feel less loveable?
I used to think that love meant I should be able to conjure up feelings of affection on demand. I thought if I tried hard I could. I learned I can’t. I know I’m not the only one. With very little effort I can give you hundreds of examples of my failure to love in spite of my best efforts.
I even fail to love people who, like me, mean well, but leave a mess to clean up in their short-sighted efforts to demonstrate it.
I can’t even imagine what it is like for the victims of extreme persecution to hear sermons about extending love to those who hate them.
Love is all very good in theory, but, as is evident in nasty posts on various media platforms, people who differ on political ideas, or even styles of music and fashion have a hard time showing it. Love, real love and not merely feel-good self-serving or erotic love is hard to come by. There are some days when I wonder if it is even possible.
And yet Jesus is clear about the command to love.
“’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ‘This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22: 37-40)
The identifying mark of the early church was expressed this way, “By this shall all people know that you are my disciples – that you have love for one another.”
Recently I hear another full-voiced charge from a pulpit that we should love like Jesus. I wanted to stand up and yell back, “Don’t keep telling us we should love without telling us how!”
People know the difference between genuine caring and marketing. They have a word for it. Hypocrisy.
Then the Lord reminded me he is not dependent on my efforts to do this without him. It’s about His love, not mine. He loved us first. I respond with that little bit that I can grasp before it falls through the holes in my heart and give it back to him. Then he pours out more love.
Paul described this kind of love – agape love, unselfish love from a perfect Father, in the passage in 1 Corinthians 13. I like to read it in different translations. The Passion Translation, which seeks to include emotional communication, calls this kind of love “large.” This is what Jesus came to show us. This is what Christ in us, the hope of glory, looks like and feels like. Large.
I need to soak in it. As I write this I am soaking my foot in a sterilized water and salt solution as part of the healing plan after minor surgery. In the same way, metaphorically speaking, I need to soak in God’s love for continuous healing of soul wounds. Abiding in his company purifies and removes distractions so I can know that I am the object of this love and that the Creator of the universe values me enough to never quit loving me. Only then can I give love the love I have received without risking burn-out or spiritual bankruptcy.
Developing a relationship with God and learning to abide, rest, dwell, and take up residency in the place of intimacy where we learn to accept a love we can’t earn is not for mystics who are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. It is the essential source for anyone who prays, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
God never takes failure as defeat, for he never gives up.